Taking city politics seriously

Does it seem strange that people on the left don't talk about city politics? We know exactly what's going on in Iraq or Argentina, we know exactly which social forces are at work and what arguments to use against our opponents. But ask us how power is organized in Chicago or LA, what the key issues are, what social groups we can look to as allies, and we're completely lost.

At least I have been, and based on the lack of writing about it in progressive publications it seems like I'm not alone. Chicago is a city seemingly full of opportunities for the left. Huge inequalities of wealth, entire sections of the city (mostly populated by minorities) left to decay and violence, inadequate public transit, major environmental concerns, increasing business homogenization, loss of public space, low wages, exploitation of immigrants, &c, &c. Yet there's virtually no progressive civil society to speak of. Electoral politics is run by the Daley machine and there's basically no public debate over city policies. Hardly any local publications cover these issues, besides occasional good reporting in The Reader, The Chicago Reporter, and Chicago Indymedia. Community groups function here and there, but with almost no visibility or power. Cooperative businesses are nowhere to be found.

So this is a call for leftists to re'engage with city issues. It's not just that there are a lot of extremely important struggles that are being neglected, it's also an important strategic issue. The kinds of social movements we need to make any sort of national or global structural changes won't have any force without a strong base in communities and democratic businesses. We don't get that by ignoring what's going on where we live.

For my Chicago friends, this article is a good place to start. We need to understand how power works before we can confront it. In Chicago, Daley's machine Democrats work with developers, unions, businesses with city contracts, and international business interests in finance, law, and manufacturing to keep a stranglehold on politics and the economy. And they do it with virtually no dissent. That has to end.


Desiree said...

I think you're right Jake. You know I think perhaps "local" and city politics scare people on the left-- it makes them have to really confront what's going on in their own back yards--why confront what's happening on your own block in terms of labor abuse, displacement, etc. when you can go off and do it in Guatemala or Chiapas? It's less romantic this way. Why confront the massive displacement occuring on the Southside of Chicago or the sweatshops operating on the Westside, when we can talk about "bad things happening in Latin America" in some far off terms in meetings on college campuses. This mentality also mirrors people's obsession with "national" elections, when so much could be done with local elections.

But I'd disagree with you on one point. I'm not in Chi-town anymore, but I do think Chicago has an amazing civil society net (I just don't think it gets any attention). I remember when I was at the Chicago Reporter, getting to know some dedicated grassroots groups, particulary in communities of color-- working on issues of drug war inequities, environmental racism, gentrification, living wage battles--who continuously work against city policies. But I do agree that they are often out there alone, and you rarely hear about their work.

suibhne said...

There are certainly left groups operating throughout the Chicago area, but they're primarily neighborhood-based and aren't networked into any larger left community. And there probably aren't nearly as many of those groups as there should be, anyway. I served on the Board of a community organizing non-profit a few years ago, and I was surprised at how underdeveloped the citywide community-organizing scene actually was.

Anonymous said...

While this may be the case in Chicago in Los Angeles it is slightly different. Of the most radical leftist groups in Los Angeles most are working on local issues.

If you want to see leftist work being done at the local levels you should check out www.saje.net/index.php, the home to the Figueroa Coalition for Economic Justice. They are trying to meld leftist ideals into solutions for desperately poor people in Los Angeles.

When I originally read your post I immediately thought of the Bus Riders Union which my brother and I belong to. They are a local group fighting for a legitimate public transportation system in Los Angeles. This issue for them cuts through issues of class, race and the environment. www.busridersunion.org

And finally though it was started by Richard Riordan the neighboorhood councils of Los Angeles www.allncs.org are beginning to be staffed by local leftists trying to reinvison what they want their neighborhoods to be. While some are just NIMBY groups others, such as the Venice chapter have begun to take on issues of gentrification which are based in race and class.

These are not marginalized groups, they are staffed and supported by people who care passionately about these issues and see the connection between local politics and the bigger picture of injustice.

While I don't completely disagree with your post I think you are using your experiences in Chicago to extrapolate to the rest of the country.

Much love,

Britt said...

After just a few months paying attention to the Chicago scene, I don't feel like I can make any sweeping statements, but I think both Des and suibhne are right... there definitely is real activity, organizing, and dissent going on, but it's certainly not connected and directed nearly as well as it should/could be, and it needs to be stronger. I get a little window into what ACORN's doing, since one of the SEIU locals I work with is a "partnership" with ACORN, and it seems pretty good to me, although I certainly haven't delved into it much. They fought against Walmart, now they're working on a strong living wage (&benefits) ordinance for Chicago big box stores. They've also been involved in fighting the building of new hospitals in white areas that would lead to the shut-down of hospitals in poor black areas-- those are the main things I can remember off the top of my head in the last few months. Also, they're heavily dominated by black, Latino, and female staff, which is good to see.

One issue you didn't mention which I've been seeing a lot of in the course of my job is schools. Watching Chicago Board of Education meetings is both inspiring and depressing. There's a fairly active and dedicated community of parents, teachers, and community members who come to the meetings to challenge the Board. But the decision-making is still profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive. Their new big thing is the "experimentation" of the Renaissance 2010 plan, planning to shut down 100 schools in the next few years and turn them into mostly contract and charter schools. This shuts out local school councils (who are actually democratically elected and made up of community members, unlike the appointed city-wide board; they already have their control and authority usurped when their schools are put on probation) and unions, and gets private and for-profit companies into the mix. There's some real anger and resistance out there, among community groups, unions, federations of local school councils... and since the School Board is all Daley-appointed, there's certainly talk about where the root of the problem lies. Of course, Daley's still in until 2007, which is a long time.

I definitely agree that there's not enough focus on local/city politics among the left, though, and especially among campus leftists. I've learned more about Chicago in the last four months than in the previous four years combined. There's certainly more we can do.